Not so many years ago in Australia if you entered a research office and asked what they were doing about research integrity, you would probably be pointed sagely toward a back corner and a dusty shelf. In that forgotten corner you would find the Joint NHMRC AVCC Statement (1997) and perhaps the policies on authorship, CoI and publication ethics. Rigid rules stored behind neglected glass to be broken and used only in the event of a juicy scandal. Especially if that scandal was bad enough to attract the bored attention of the media and so also that of a ministerial staffer waiting for the chance to impress her boss.
The arrival of the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research (2007) brought with it the whiff of welcome change. Things were poised to get better. Even though half of the document was devoted to research misconduct and the linguistically oddly named ‘breaches of the Code” it was also replete with references to institutional responsibilities and even the previously unmentioned role of research culture.
But what happened instead was…
Large consultancy firms, form makers and HR specialists got involved. Any notion of resourcing researchers honestly discussing contributions to a piece of work and agreeing how to acknowledge contributions was replaced by a compulsory form, and internationally lauded IT systems, and by sanctions intended to slam any non-compliers into submission.
If “responsible conduct of research” means what it appears to mean and not its opposite (as those initial responses suggested), institutional approaches to research integrity must surely become about doing research well. Those of us who talk about research integrity would no longer be dismissed as someone riding in on a donkey, wooden sword in hand talking about our mission to civilize bureaucratic arrangements and give research integrity back to researchers.
The questionable Miguel de Cervantes allusion notwithstanding, there’s a serious point to be made for researchers, research managers and regulators. Investing in compliance systems, bureaucratic processes and law firms, is not a positive investment in the research culture of an institution. Instead, research integrity must be approached like any cultural change objective — it needs to practitioner focused, include practical and helpful resources and firmly reject the sanction/enforcement model.
Spending money on an off-the-shelf framework might appear to be a major demonstrable investment in responsible research at an institution, but it misses the fundamental flaw in Weberian Orthodoxy: more rules, tougher sanctions and better forms cannot possibly shift the culture of conduct of something as diverse and complex as academic research. Punishing the 99.99% of researchers to catch the 00.01% is not only unbalanced, unsustainable and toxic, there are good reasons to be confident that the malicious minority won’t be caught by a punitive framework. Instead, these very few miscreants will game and avoid the system, misrepresent, deceive and avoid, no doubt prompting a fresh round of tough institutional strategies.
Working together we all need to shift the discourse about research integrity from compliance with rules to prevent misconduct to resourcing practice and valuing positive role models.
What might a more positive approach look like:
1) Integrity advisers who have the role of providing collegiate advice on excellent practice, how best to avoid common pitfalls, and who can promote the message research integrity is primarily about research practice;
2) Resources that support reflective practice and encourage engaged discussion between collaborators;
3) A considerable focus on research training that is disciplinary and methodologically relevant, with different strategies and content to match the expertise of researchers; and
4) First and foremost distributing ownership of the institution’s research integrity arrangements so they belong to the entire research community and are the responsibility of every member of that community.
And now a new edition of the Australian Code is on the horizon. Expecting all researchers irrespective of field, discipline and area of practice to complete a dual usage form is not a promising sign. It seems it’s not yet time to retire my trusty donkey and wooden sword.
NHMRC/AVCC (1997) Joint NHMRC / AVCC Statement and Guidelines on Research Practice. Available at: http://www.nhmrc.gov.au/guidelines-publications/r24 (accessed 12 October 2015).
NHMRC (2007) Australian Code for the responsible conduct of research. Available at: http://www.nhmrc.gov.au/guidelines-publications/r39 (accessed 12 October 2015).
The views expressed here are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Griffith University, AHRECS, my consultancy clients or the NHMRC committees I serve on.
This blog may be cited as:
Allen, G (2015, 19 October) Institutional approaches to research integrity: Tilting at blazing windmills?. AHRECS Blog. Retrieved from https://ahrecs.com/research-integrity/institutional-approaches-to-research-integrity-tilting-at-blazing-windmills